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Sophie Says: An interview with rally driver Keanna Erickson-Chang

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After recently spectating the enthralling Wales GB rally, I decided to catch up with American rally driver Keanna Erickson-Chang to hear her thoughts on competing in her first Wales GB rally, how the USA’s rally scene is different to the UK’s and what it’s like to be a woman in a predominately male sport…

Hi Keanna! Firstly thank you for agreeing to this interview. Being a karter myself, I’m really interested in hearing about your rallying and your own journey into motorsport. So to begin… how did you get into Motorsport?

“I grew up in Vermont, and we have pretty harsh winters. Shortly after I received my drivers’ license (you get your learner’s permit at age 15 and eligible for a license starting at 16 in Vermont), my father took me to a winter driving school. I wasn’t exactly hooked after the first experience, but was determined to go back and learn to nail the techniques. Once I really got the feeling of sliding the car and being in control, I started to love it.

After a few of the winter driving schools, I started doing high performance track driving and wheel-to-wheel ice racing (on road courses plowed onto frozen lakes). Eventually I also started circuit racing in a couple different amateur series with plans to step up into something more professional for 2016… but then I found rallying!”

What is it that you love about rallying? How did you know it was the right formula of racing for you?

“When I saw my first rally, it brought me back to why I fell in love with driving in the first place– the amount of car control that rallying commands is so much greater than in other forms of racing! I knew immediately that I was headed down the wrong path with circuit racing. There are aspects of wheel-to-wheel racing that I miss, but I much prefer racing on gravel. The camaraderie of rallying was just another thing, there’s entirely a different energy to the sport!”

Who are your biggest inspirations?

“Growing up, I was never surrounded by motorsport and knew nothing about it, so when I was getting into the sport, I didn’t really have anyone to look up to. Many of the “heroes” of the sport that I knew about at the time were male figures who had a pretty horrific view on female participation. Eventually I learned about women like Divina Galica and Michèle Mouton and Lyn St. James who have been so important in paving the way for women. But some of the best inspiration has come from my peers, especially the support that Stephanie (of gearhead girls racing) has given me over the years!”

Phot credit: Emotive Image

You competed in Wales Rally GB- How did it go? Was it different to rallies you’ve raced in before?

“Wales Rally GB was a big learning experience. It was the first time driving the new Fiesta evolution R2T, so that alone was tricky… especially on a wet rally where managing wheelspin is a factor. It was also my first time working with my co-driver, so there was the additional challenge of building that partnership. The biggest difference was competing in a rally that goes on so long, with two very long days of reconnaissance and then the rally being over four days. After doing the recce on Corsica earlier this year, and then running notes during the competitive legs, I was well-prepared for how long the rally was going to be. I also competed in two rounds of the CFR, the national French rally championship, in the first half of my season, and those events aren’t quite as long but operate similarly, so they were also a good primer for my first WRC.”

How big is the rallying scene in America? How is it different to the UK’s?

“Rally in the States is still very influenced by the grassroots level and keeping it as accessible as possible, which is great for keeping the sport alive but is very different from rallying in much of the rest of the world. Currently there are nine championship rounds, with more than 3,000 miles between the farthest two rallies. Given the size of the country, the national championship’s travel distance is closer to what you’d see in an FIA Regional Championship. This obviously creates many challenges, one being the emphasis put on the East USA and West USA “regional” championships. Also, in the past few years, we had two series simultaneously running national championships, and 2019 marked the dissolution of this. Over the couple of years prior, more rallies were organized to fill gaps in the schedules, and we also saw more teams entering the sport with the increased number of events. A typical rally during this past season would draw 50-70 entries. A key difference is that we don’t have FIA classifications, so you don’t see many proper R5s or R2s, though there are more this year than ever before. Instead, there’s a massive Subaru presence because spares for these cars are so easy to source. Overall, the level of competition is quite drawn out with so many different kinds of cars– in 2WD, anything from Fiesta R2s, to supercharged BRZs, e30s, an insane Lexus build, or anything the R&D team at Honda can dream up!”

You’ve already had an amazing career at such a young age- what are your career highlights to date?

“One of my highlights from this year was at my third event in the R2, where I set a top-10 stage time on Maryhill, a tarmac hill climb stage on the Oregon Trail Rally which had over 70 entries this year! At my last rally of 2018, LSPR, we set third, fourth, and sixth overall stage times in an R1 on the first leg of Saturday morning when it snowed overnight. I have a couple of vice-champion titles in the B-Spec National Championship and two third-place finishes in the US National Championship in different open 2WD classes. Going back a bit further, I was the first woman to qualify for the Wells Fargo Invitational Autocross Shootout, and in ice racing, was the driver with the most wins in my class in 2015 and was Rookie of the Year in 2014.”

With rallying being a mainly male-dominated sport, have you encountered any challenges in the sport because of your gender?

“I wouldn’t say that being a female driver has caused me any setbacks in racing, but that’s not to say that there are never any challenges. Just recently, I was directed to the “spectator” side of scrutineering when going to tech my gear, a small mistake but shows that there is still a problematic, stereotypical image of racing drivers… male. One of my (female) co-drivers and I have not been taken seriously on numerous occasions when trying to help competitors, or have been treated like we’re making a silly mistake, when really we have been the most clever! At the end of the day it is the nature of motorsport that respect must be earned, regardless of gender, and I like to believe that the opportunity to do so is equal.”

Photo credit: Emotive Image

The W series is a female only racing series designed to help give women drives in single seat formulas. What are your opinions on female only racing series? Would you like to see it in rallying?

“I see value in having all-female events as a key step in getting girls and women into the sport, but when it comes to competition, I don’t see having any sort of gendered racing series to be highly productive. I really like how, for example, the ERC has a Ladies scheme, but the scoring is all based off of overall finishing position, not how the women finish against each other. That all being said, following W Series this year, I did not have the highest of expectations but wound up being quite happy with the overall execution and of the opportunities that the competitors have had a result!”

You’re an active member of the Dare To Be Different community- Susie Wolff’s group who’s aim is to encourage women into motorsport. What are your thoughts on Dare To Be Different and what advice would you give to young girls wanting to get involved in Motorsport?

“D2BD is a great initiative– I’m really excited about the way it focuses on all different aspects of motorsport. Unfortunately, as it’s not launched in the USA, I haven’t had the opportunity to fully see it in action. We have another initiative based out of Indianapolis which launched here in 2018, Fuel the Female, which does similar work to D2BD and is exciting as well. I especially love that D2BD has partnered with F1 in Schools, as I think it’s such a valuable competition that teaches many important life skills.

I’d suggest that girls and young women, no matter which part of motorsport they are interested in, reach out to women in the field. Most women are happy to talk and share their advice with the next generation. Additionally, having contacts, male and female, is so important in the industry, and oftentimes you will find help down the road in unexpected places… so connect with everyone possible, it’s key to success in the industry. Lastly, don’t let anybody tell you what you should or shouldn’t be, just stay true to yourself!”

You’ve already achieved a lot in a very little amount of time! What are your future ambitions?

“I’d really like to continue what I started at GB… I’m working hard to make a season in the Junior WRC happen! I still have a lot to learn, and the JWRC has a lot it can teach. From there, who knows?!”

Thanks for your time Keanna, it was great talking to you!

“Cheers!”

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